Ace's two-CD collection of records played on the second season of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour series has 50 tracks that -- like the series itself -- cover an astonishingly wide range of high-quality music. True, although the chronology spans 1927 to 2004, it's definitely dominated by pre-1970 releases. It's also true that though it touches upon a lot of styles, there's definitely a pronounced leaning toward the more down-to-earth and rootsy sectors of American 20th century popular music. But while this particular goulash might not be to every radio listener's taste (let alone every CD collector's), it does offer quite an eclectic assortment of high-quality and, for the most part, not very well-known cuts. Indeed, the expanse surveyed is so wide it kind of defies summarization in a mere one- or two-paragraph review. After all, how many other compilations out there include material by James Brown, Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Los Lobos, Nilsson, Loretta Lynn, Dionne Warwick, Porter Wagoner, Swamp Dogg, Lucinda Williams, Billie Holiday, Mose Allison, Miriam Makeba, Edith Piaf, and Desmond Dekker? Or genres encompassing mambo, free jazz, rockabilly, old-time folk, soul, Cajun, and numerous others?
Although a few hits and classics sneak in (Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," Wanda Jackson's rockabilly stormer "Let's Have a Party," Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday," Mose Allison's "Young Man's Blues"), usually these cuts are items that even collectors with big libraries don't likely own yet. Picking out highlights is a bit hopelessly daunting with such a diverse set. But certainly the hot jazz of Baron Lee & the Mills Blue Rhythm Band's "Reefer Man," Miriam Makeba's buoyant pre-exile bopper "Make Us One," and Chris Powell & His Five Blue Flames' infectious calypso-jazz-R&B hybrid "I Come from Jamaica" (on which Clifford Brown made his recording debut) are, as just a few examples, top-rank items you're very unlikely to have heard unless you tuned in to one of Dylan's radio broadcasts during this series. They're also indicative of a tendency -- and hardly an objectionable one -- of Dylan to play pretty upbeat and witty stuff that is, on the whole, considerably more consistently effervescent than what he offers on his own recordings. You also have to wonder if he actually heard and/or selected all of the esoteric items here prior to the broadcasts -- had he ever, for instance, really listened to something like the moody mod of French singer Jacqueline Taïeb's 1968 single "7 Heures du Matin" before it was part of his radio series?
Serious Dylan fanatics might be disappointed that these discs don't include his often witty spoken introductions. And while this is as wide-ranging and excitingly unpredictable as radio should be (and rarely is), its range is so wide that even some listeners with extremely catholic tastes might not find it too conducive for repeated listening. Those qualifications aside, however, this collection does undoubtedly contain a wealth of fine music, albeit often of the sort you wouldn't suspect Dylan to have in his private collection. Ace's customarily fine liner notes also add to the anthology's excellent balance between highly entertaining music and highly educational introductions to records of which you most likely weren't previously aware.